The 1920s were a deliciously dramatic time in America’s history, nowhere more dramatic than in New York, where teems of new immigrants flocked to the city’s shores and the roaring dance halls let fringed escort shimmy on the arms of their handsome patrons and champagne flowed like water. Prohibition, which raged from 1920 to 1933, was no hindrance for the crime scene and the financial elite who desired their whiskey straight and their weekend romps to extend late into the night.
And Polly Adler supplied them with just that, and more.
Born Pearl Adler, Polly emigrated from a small Russian town near the Polish border in 1914 when she was 14, right before the start of World War One. The eldest of nine children of a relatively affluent family, she was sent to live with friends in Boston until the rest of her family could join her. But the start of the war ended this plan, along with the monthly stipend her father sent her. She moved to Brooklyn to live with relatives, attending school and eventually working in a shirt factory.
But an unwanted pregnancy and self-desired abortion at 19-years old caused a riff between her and her family. During this time, and especially in New York and the border cities of our country’s east coast, single women flocked to factory work, dressmaking and manual labor and tried to keep out of trouble.
An even smaller number of such women let “trouble” make their money for them. Prostitution amongst the city’s single female immigrant population was obviously not uncommon.
Ever free-spirited and sharp-minded, Pearl made a quick connection between the needs of these excitement-hungry night lifers and how she could be the one to supply them with pretty, young women who knew that being an escort might be the step they needed in securing the American dream for their families.
“Polly” Adler wad born.
She opened her first bordello (such a better word than brothel or whorehouse, no?) in 1920. Underworld mobster Dutch Schultz, friend to the infamous Lucky Luciano, gave her an offer she truly couldn’t refuse: For Dutchy she would keep a furnished apartment so that he could spend time with his married girlfriend. In off hours she would use the space to arrange escort trysts for her growing clientele of the city’s most powerful henchmen—drinkers and gamblers who knew how to take care of a businesswoman they could trust.
And trust in Polly they could. In the coming 20 years she moved her bordello many times to avoid being caught by the police—many of whom she paid off with thousands of dollars over the decades to keep mum. To keep up with her desire for servicing the best of upper-class clientele, she opened a house in Saratoga during the summer season, luring tourists from the city with the idea that “going to Polly’s” on their way home from their romps out was the best way to end an evening. Her houses were always gorgeously decorated with rich carpets, dark wood furniture, fringed lighting and comfortable parlours. Not just a place to escape with a pretty escort, men could bring their lady companiond in for a bootlegged drink and game of cards—hers were places to sit and play, not just get off.
During these two decades she was arrested 17 times, sometimes for running a house of prostitution, others for housing lewd pictures and films—the delightfully early forms of pornography. In the mid 1930s she did spend about 24 days in prison washing floors, but other than that, she was a respected and highly successful madam in some of the city’s darkest decades.
Never once did she rat out her mobster friends, but her association with them wasn’t exactly one that brought her full peace of mind. She never married and rarely dated, and never put herself up as an escort, only serving as Madam. Her lifelong friendship with Schultz both guaranteed that she had a relatively healthy flow of clients as well as some form of protection. But she did often fear that she might be killed by one of Schultz’ rivals, and until she left the business in 1943 lived in a slight state of edge.
When she stepped away from the prostitution trade she moved to California, went to college, and penned the memoir A House Is Not a Home. The book was incredibly successful, allowing her to live comfortably for the rest of her life. It was even made into a film starring Shelley Winters. In the book she wrote:
If I was to make my living as a madam, I could not be concerned either with the rightness or wrongness of prostitution, considered either from a moral or criminological standpoint. I had to look at it simply as a part of life, which exists today as it existed yesterday… The operation of any business in contingent on the law of supply and demand, and if there were no customers, there certainly would be no whorehouses. Prostitution exists because [people] are willing to pay for sexual gratification, and whatever [people] are willing to pay for, someone will provide.
Well said, Polly, well said.